By SOPHIE DONOGHUE
BRUSSELS – Despite the growing problem of radicalisation in schools and universities across Europe from all directions, policymakers are especially reluctant to touch the issue of Islamist radical agendas due to fears of racist accusations, according to social workers and others intimately familiar with the subject.
The ultra-sensitive topic of radicalisation was the subject of a 13 November panel discussion here, led by the European Foundation for Democracy and hosted by Olle Schmidt, a Swedish member of the European Parliament.
Extremist ideologies are those that incite hatred of other groups, preach racial or religious superiority, reject the rule of law, democracy and individual rights, or call on followers to use violence and terrorism to achieve their political or religious goals. They represent serious threats to Europe’s security, according to speakers at the conference.
Ahmed Mansour, based in Berlin and a member of the social worker group, Deutscher Islamkonferenz (Prevention Work with Youths), says the targeting of Muslim youths by Islamist extremists is an “illness of Europe”, which is only getting stronger. He said there is a general taboo across society to tackle the issue, adding that many deny there is a problem at all.
Schmidt observed that the topic is often dangerously hijacked by political groups. and that there is a need to “take back control’ and lead the discussion on this issue “We shouldn’t be afraid” to do this, he said.
According to Robert Sutton, a researcher with Student Rights in London – a non-partisan group dedicated to supporting equality, democracy and freedom from extremism at universities – extremists are active on campuses in the UK and throughout Europe. Distinguishing between those whose views are radical but lawful versus those whose extreme views incite hatred and violence is obviously difficult, he said. “There are major tensions between freedom of speech claims and security challenges and it is made all the more delicate by the danger of stigmatising Muslim society.”
Mansour argued that young Muslims, as with their counterparts anywhere, are vulnerable to radicalization. He said Islamist extremists in Germany, for example, use clever strategies such as internet-based techniques to win over impressionable teenagers or exploit the idea of “the world against me”, which works well among young people.
The idea that Muslims cannot live beside non-Muslims is being propagated, leading to an “us versus them” chasm, he observed, adding that schools and the education system are the best tool to counter radicalisation. “Young people need to be taught how to think critically in school to protect them from radicalists,” he said.
Rashad Ali, a researcher focused on Islamism and former member of the UK-based revolutionary arm of the Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, said the aim is not to shut down dialogue or to discourage the Muslim religion but to expose students to different point of views and to promote freedom of expression. Ali himself was recruited to Hizb ut-Tahrir in the 1990’s as a result of guest lecturers with a radical agenda at his school.
Civic institutions need more training on how to recognise extremism and radicalisation, according to Ali. “Just as there are interventions for people who start down the path of drug addiction or get involved in ganglands, interventions need to be in place for the prevention of radicalisation of young people,” he said.
One case example aired during the conference was UK-born Hasib Hussain. At 18 years old, he was the youngest of the London bombers of 2005. Post-event investigations revealed he was “clean” – except that a teacher noticed pro-jihad scribblings only months prior to the bombing. Unsure of what steps to take – doodling is not illegal – the teacher did report it but no further action was taken.
“Of course people should not be incarcerated for scribbling, but some sort of a system needs to be put into place: the educational system is the ideal place to pull young people back from radicalisation,” Lorenzo Vidino, European Forum for Democracy’s senior policy advisor, told the event.
Yet how to carry out such surveillance without endangering democracy or negative public perceptions? The UK’s counter-radicalisation “Prevent” strategy, launched in 2007, is a good example of how well-intentioned initiatives can go off-kilter. As the preventative strand of the government’s broader counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent “is perceived very negatively by UK students as ‘islamophobic’ and racist,” he said.
And what works in one region or country by no means transfers easily to another. The EU 27 member states tried marching down that path a few years ago with a hoped-for manual of universal best practices that could be shared between law enforcement agencies across Europe. But local radicalisation conditions are too particular for that to offer much utility.
Instead of aiming for prescriptive legislation or approaches that tip-toe around the issue without naming it, perhaps national and EU leaders should more openly condemn the agendas of Islamic groups that preach violence or its near-equivalent as firmly incompatible with European values. That would encourage those Muslims working to counter such groups at the local level and thus help ensure that Muslim youth integrate – and not disaggregate – with European society.